The one question you should ask your dog before every single training session is, “Are you ready?” I call this the Where’s Your Brain? game; other people call it ready to work or start button routines. I start each and every training session by asking my dog, “Can you pay attention to me?” I want a way to ask my dog if he’s okay with proceeding with training, competing, or whatever else it might be. Do I have his attention and focus, without forcing it? Is he ready to work?
The last thing I want to do is beg my dog for attention or plead with him to respond to my cues. Giving my dog a cue when he is not ready only sets the dog up to ignore me. I will not cue my dog to do anything if he is not connected to me.
It’s quite simple, really. If my dog cannot respond to a simple reinforcement cue, I would be crazy to think that he can respond to a more complicated cue like down or heel. Until I have consistent rapid responses to reinforcement cues, I do not proceed with training.
To ask the question, come up with a routine that allows your dog to tell you when he is ready. My dogs find working with me very reinforcing, so it’s something they’d like to start as soon as possible! That being said, sometimes, particularly in new situations, the dog needs some time to acclimate. In this case, I want to give my dog the time he needs to feel comfortable in the environment, because it’s pretty hard to learn if you’re uncomfortable.
Where’s Your Brain?
My training routine generally starts with my dog in the crate. This could be the crate in the car, the crate at the training facility, or the crate at the trial. When I open the door and attach the leash, my dog will stay in the crate until they hear the release word. Once I get eye contact from the dog (which is not something I ask for, instead he offers it) I release the dog to come out of the crate.
At that point, I allow the dog to look around for as long as he needs. Depending on the situation, maybe I’ll stick him on a station or in a relaxed down stay so he can observe the environment. Or, I might walk him around or have him observe from the sidelines or a corner.
Even while my dog is acclimating, he can’t just drag me around on a tight leash and rush up to other dogs or people. I still expect the dog to behave and walk on a loose leash, but I don’t demand attention from the dog.
Once my dog has had enough time to check out the environment, it’s time to start our training session! These sessions always start similar once I get to the training area, but moving to that area might look different. Depending on the situation and where I am, I might transport the dog to the training area by luring him with a treat magnet, or I might send him to a station in the area.
Once we move into the area, I will pause and look at my dog. I start by waiting for *offered* eye contact. My dog should look at me without being prompted. I want him to initiate the session. This pattern of eye contact has been reinforced since my dog was a puppy, so it should come fairly easily.
When I get offered eye contact, I will mark with a “yes” and feed from my hand. Once the dog eats the treat, I pay attention to how long it takes him to look back at me. I want him to swallow the treat and look back at me right away. This tells me that he’s focused on me. I will usually do a few different reward markers, starting with yes (feed from my hand). When he is immediately offering eye contact after eating the treat, I will make it more difficult by doing a get it (throw the treat on the ground). I usually throw the first treat close to me, to make it slightly easier for him. Once again, I pay attention to what happens from the time he eats the treat until I get eye contact again. If my dog is distracted at that moment, whether it’s sniffing the ground or looking around before coming back to me, I know he is not in the ideal place for learning.
Not Ready to Work?
So, my dog is distracted after eating the get it treat. Now what? Depending on how distracted he was, I might wait for eye contact and do another get it treat. If he’s really distracted or still struggles, I’ll go back to yes. I might move farther away from distractions or even move to a different area if my dog is really struggling. I will not start training if he can’t give me attention after eating a treat.
If my dog can’t focus on me right after eating a treat, then how could I expect him to give me anything more than eating food? I don’t want to cue a behavior if he is distracted, so I use reward markers so he can tell me if he’s able to work. It’s my job to listen to him.
Here’s a good example of Excel telling me he’s not ready. The chicken poop all over my yard was just too enticing!
What I’m paying attention to in this video is what happens after Excel eats the treat. If he reorients right back to me, that’s great! If he gets distracted or sniffy after eating the treat, he’s not ready to move on to the next step. In this video I progressed to doing get it treats, but he never got to the point where he could eat the treat off the ground and come back to me. I would not start a training session at this point.
Compare that to this video:
Notice how after every treat, Excel returned to me quickly. On the first couple get its, he did a quick sniff on his way back but did not get distracted. However, on the last one he came right back to me. He was then able to focus on my verbal sit and stand cues.
This is what I’m looking for before I start training. He’s telling me that he’s ready to work. If I tried to train the dog he was in that first video, we wouldn’t have a very successful training session!
Before you start a training session, ask your dog, “Where’s your brain?” And even more important, listen to his answer! You’ll have far better responses to cues and success if you take the time to teach him this game!